Being white isn’t as advantageous as it used to be. The middle class is struggling, and the country is more diverse by the day. Many people have fears and worries that need to be acknowledged if we are going to make a fairer society for everyone.
“We need to talk about the profound anxiety they are feeling,” john a. powell said in a lecture Tuesday evening.
He said the very idea of race is being remade right now, and we have to decide whether to be actively involved in the change process or let it play out on its own.
He spoke in Seattle at the Pacific Science Center, which is hosting the exhibit RACE: Are We So Different? Powell, who helped develop the exhibit, is a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and an authority on race who draws from multiple academic and scientific disciplines to understand race and the role it plays in our country. He’s the executive director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at Berkeley.
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Mayor Mike McGinn, speaking before powell (who prefers his name lowercase), said race is hard to talk about, but it continues to affect people’s lives. He recalled the city’s testing of fairness in rentals, in which the city sent out inspectors posing as prospective tenants the same age, gender and with the same background information and found that white inspectors fared much better than black ones. It wasn’t malice, he said, but something was going on.
Powell said race is something we do, a habit, and like most habits it’s not so easy to quit because it happens on an unconscious level. Consciously, almost no one today wants to be racist, he said. The conscious self wants not to notice, but it is overpowered by the unconscious. Science has been telling us for some time that race is not a meaningful biological concept, but we keep acting as if it were, seemingly unable to put what we know into practice.
Facts, he said, have no effect on the unconscious. We have to take another tact if we are going to rid ourselves of racism. We have to change the institutional policies and practices that support continuing bias, and we have to address the unconscious, where bias and prejudice arise.
“Eighty-five percent of Americans say they want integrated schools, but about 85 percent of kids go to segregated schools,” he said. When we see such disparities, we should look at patterns and outcomes and ask what’s going on.
When Social Security was first crafted, the definition of work left out housework, domestic work, and farm labor, which meant women, blacks and Latinos, who were heavily concentrated in those areas, were at a disadvantage, though the law did not intentionally target race or sex. What seems neutral isn’t always. Domestic workers and farmworkers were included later.
During his stay in Seattle, powell talked with Seattle schools’ educators about the practices and policies they might change.
Seattle Public Schools has a problem with disproportionate application of discipline. He suggested the school district think about how much disciplinary discretion it gives teachers, whose subjective choices may be biased without their being aware.
He talked about the history of black behavior being viewed in a negative light that continues to shape perceptions today. “When I was growing up in the South,” powell said, “a black person looking at a white person could be charged with reckless eyeballing.”
Humans everywhere have defined themselves against the other, and here it has been white and the racial other. Some people today feel their identity as white people is under siege, though they might not put it in so many words.
The country is stressed economically and changing demographically, he said, both pose threats to identity, to the self that can’t be addressed through appeals to facts.
“Look at poor whites,” he said. “We say they are voting against their interests.” He said the states most hostile to food stamps are the ones that need help most. “We (progressives) say they are stupid, and that’s a mistake on our part.”
Liberals, he said, try to address people’s economic interests or their political interests, but ignore the spiritual level, their sense of self, which is what they are trying to preserve.
“The reason the government is shut down is because of race,” Powell said. “The tea party is saying that ‘We’d rather blow the country up than be in some institutional relationship with black people and Latinos. … and even though we need health insurance as well, if Obama says yes, we gotta say no.’ ”
Powell said liberals need to acknowledge anxieties over identity, something they’ve avoided in the past. He said that when opponents of school integration said it would lead to interracial romance, civil-rights leaders said no it wouldn’t. When activists today are told same-sex marriages will change the institution of marriage, they say no it won’t.
Just say the truth, he said. Change will come, but it’s OK. Immigration will change America, but it’s OK; we can work to shape change in positive ways for everyone, but not if we’re in denial.
Positive change, powell said, requires acknowledging and addressing fear and anxiety, and, at the same time, adopting policies and practices in institutions that prevent our unconscious minds from putting our behaviors into conflict with our conscious ideals.
Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or firstname.lastname@example.org